Until the arrival in Scotland of indoor ice rinks, the ice of which was made by machine and did not depend on the climate, there was a continuous search for ways to provide more curling. Perhaps the most successful was John Cairnie's 'artificial rink', in which a thin skin of ice was sprayed onto an impermeable surface. Since a thin skin of ice could be created almost whenever there was a bit of frost this invention proved very popular. It has been calculated that a well-situated Cairnie rink could quadruple the number of curling days. Cairnie, the first President of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, had sought to popularise his invention by the publication in Glasgow in 1833 of his book, An Essay on Curling and Artificial Pond Making.
The laird of Morrishill beside Beith, Alexander Shedden, who was a keen sportsman, created a Cairnie-type rink which was used for curling in the winter. That did not give him as much curling as he wished and so he devised a game which was to be played on this rink outdoors but did not need even a degree of frost. The rink he used was composed of a bottoming of large stones, which were covered with a stratum of rotten-rock, covered by a layer of engine ashes and freestone sand well mixed. This was meticulously levelled.
The rink was situated between the walled garden and the boundary wall of the estate, as identified in this article.
The 'stones' which Shedden designed for outdoor use on this rink were spherical in form, the body of wood covered all over with a skin of copper, or tin. It was necessary to balance each ball and this was done by floating them in water. Balls which had a core made from lignum vitae had to be balanced by floating them on mercury for that wood is heavier than water. After various attempts at throwing these balls it was found that a spring handle answered the purpose admirably.
We are fortunate that Chance has preserved for us an example of one of these balls in the Dick Institute at Kilmarnock. Click here to see a photo.
The Report narrates in considerable detail the names of persons attending the dinner, and the reasons for holding the dinner and making the presentation. It began: “A number of Curlers, and others in the parish of Beith, anxious to convey some expression of their esteem and regard towards Alexander Shedden, Esq, of Morrishill, for the uniform kindness he has ever displayed in inviting them to join with him in the various games he has so liberally promoted within his grounds, foremost among which is 'Scotland's Ain Game'; and also for the talent and ingenuity he has exhibited, not only in inventing, but bringing to perfection an entirely new game, which being played on an artificial rink prepared for the purpose, can at all times be practised, and is an excellent substitute for curling."
Alexander Shedden was entertained at a public dinner, on Tuesday, February 17, 1846, on which occasion he was presented with an elegant silver jug.
“The party was purposely of a select nature, but upwards of 60 gentlemen, comprising the most influential and keenest curlers of the district, sat down to an excellent dinner provided by Mr Kennedy of the Saracen's Head Inn, Beith. Hugh Brown, Esq, of Broadstone in the chair...”
The Report's description of the new game meant that, “The announcement of its success, a success practically proved, and warmly acknowledged by the keenest and most experienced curlers of the district, would not be unacceptable to their curling and sporting friends at a distance, who had neither the opportunity of seeing the rink, or hearing its construction and double use fully explained.”
At the dinner and after the presentation to him of a silver jug, appropriately engraved, and bearing on its lid a statuette of a man – presumably the laird himself – preparing to throw one of his new 'stones', Alexander Shedden, in the course of replying to the toast in his honour, displayed one of his balls, 10 inches in diameter and weighing 23 lbs and explained, “My idea always was, that a substitute game might be got up, and my argument in favour of this was, that if one could produce a thoroughly level surface, a perfectly round Ball, and equally balanced, it would be as unnatural for a ball so adjusted to depart from a direct line, when once set in motion on a perfect level, as for a stone to move out of a perpendicular dropped from a height...”
After many toasts, as was the custom at that period, the proceedings were concluded by a speech from Mr William Paton, the oldest curler present. He said, “With regard to our worthy Guest's improvement; he has brought forward a set of balls, majestic in their appearance, and if a stranger was standing fifteen yards distant he would wonder how the balls were to be propelled. (Great cheering.) But, by the ingenuity displayed by our worthy Guest, there's a handle springs up from the bowels of the ball as if by magic, and when the ball is delivered, it recedes back into the ball by the same magic, just as it had come forth; (cheers) and, gentlemen, at the word of command, 'Hocus pocus, fly, Jack, and begone!', it rolls away majestically to its destination. (Great cheering.)
That manly game of Balls is a substitute for curling, and has been brought forward by Alexander Shedden, Esq, and in my opinion, as a curler for the last fifty years, it comes as nigh curling as anything that has been produced...”
By David B Smith
Illustrations are courtesy of the author